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THE GODFATHER and the Cartoon Riots of 2006

February 8, 2006

pacinocartoon_protest_2_2.jpgA week ago I re-watched cinema classic The Godfather. This week, I gawked at the ongoing violent response by too-many Muslims throughout the world to thoughtless Danish political cartoons mocking their Prophet.


I was reminded of The Godfather.


See, like all great stories, The Godfather has that ability to reflect and refract how we view our own life and times and even to help us to understand others whom we find so…Other. Like people who want to kill a human being over a cartoon. So, stay with me here…


When Michael Corleone has to flee to Italy midway through the movie, he goes to his ancestral home town of Corleone, Sicily. The streets are barren. He asks his native guides, “Where are all the men?” The answer: they have all killed each other, acting on vendettas. Vendetta killing was part of an ancient, tribal value system that the Sicilians had not been able to shake off even into the 20th century –“You killed someone from my family, my clan, so now I will kill one from yours.” Why? For the sake of the clan’s honor.


Cut back to today’s news. 11 people have been murdered so far in response to these insulting European cartoons. And why? For the sake of the religion’s honor.


The connection between the movie and the news was sparked by recent comments by Dennis Prager (see “800 Lb. Gorillas” to left). Prager opines that we’re now seeing a clash of value systems in our world: the ancient system in which honor of the tribe (religion/family/clan) trumps all versus the system founded in Judaism in which right and wrong trump all. Back to The Godfather, we see this clash illustrated in powerful microcosm – in the famous baptism montage, we see that Michael has chosen the way of the vendetta versus the way of Good. This is disturbingly embodied in his hollow renunciation of the devil during his baptismal vows… as his henchmen bump off the enemies of “the Family.”






It would be easy to see the backwards trend of “our honor above all” in many Arab and Muslim nations as something indecipherable, something totally alien to my own nature. But, The Godfather gives me a character I can more easily identify with in Michael Corleone. As I identify with him as he gets pulled into the powerful embrace of tribal honor, I can no longer hold its appeal at arm’s length. The older I get, the more I can feel in bones the universal strength of ties to family, church, school, nation, etc. The love and sense of identity these ties provide have roots both elevated and primal.


All of this gives me a new perspective when looking at the latest Other — the tribalism of so many Arabian and Muslim peoples is not indigenous or exclusive to them, but the manifestation of an ongoing, ancient struggle within a fallen humanity. Within my own heart, even.






That said, we must avoid the mistake of our Po-Mo Western culture – human empathy should not equal moral justification. Just as the Sicilian culture represented in fiction by Corleone had to break free of its self-destructive, pathological overemphasis on tribal honor, so must today’s Islam divorce itself of the same. I’ll do my part to encourage this revolution of the heart — God willing with a new measure of regard for the depth of inner and societal struggle faced by those fighting for it within Islam. I welcome their voices.

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